Tag Archives forK-12 scholarships

Republic National Distributing Company donates $65 million to help fund scholarship program for lower-income students

By Ashley Zarle

TAMPA, Fla.– Republic National Distributing Company (RNDC), one of the nation’s leading wholesale alcohol beverage distributors, has once again contributed $65 million to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.

RNDC celebrated on Oct. 22 the substantial donation while visiting Tampa Catholic High School students who use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students. RNDC’s contribution funds 9,339 scholarships for deserving K-12 Florida schoolchildren. The scholarships give lower-income children the opportunity to attend a private or out-of-district school that best meets their learning needs.

“At Republic National Distributing Company, we are committed to making a positive difference that enriches the spirit and well-being of our associates, communities, and business partners”, said Ron Barcena, executive vice president of RNDC. “We know that our partnership with Step Up For Students is doing just that and we are proud to help provide thousands of Florida schoolchildren with the educational opportunities they deserve.”


Republic National Distributing Company announced a $65 million contribution to Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are Step Up For Students Founder & Chairman John Kirtley, Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill, and RNDC Florida Executive Vice President Ron Barcena. They are joined by Tampa Catholic High School students who are benefiting from the scholarship.

While visiting Tampa Catholic High School, RNDC representatives had a chance to experience the zSpace Lab. zSpace is a virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) system that uses a unique stylus and eyewear to create an interactive experience covering subjects like animal dissection and anatomy, but also others like geography and history. Users can access a frog dissection model, as well as other 3D programs like simulated archaeological digs or interactive geometry. Students enjoyed showing the representatives how to use the program and the different courses that are available.


Tampa Catholic High School students, who use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students, had fun showing
Republic National Distributing Company key account manager Perry Thomas how to use the zSpace program.

Since 2012, Republic National Distributing Company has generously funded 49,675 scholarships through contributions totaling $310 million to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations. Step Up is serving more than 100,400 students for the 2019-20 school year. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

“RNDC has once again shown their incredible commitment to Florida’s disadvantaged schoolchildren through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program which is producing exceptional results,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “Recently, the Urban Institute evaluated graduates of our program and found students who use the scholarship for at least four years are 99% more likely to attend a four-year college and up to 45% more likely than their public school peers to earn a bachelor’s degree. RNDC is a critical part of this success and we are grateful for their support of deserving students in our community.”

Ashley Zarle can be reached at AZarle@StepUpForStudents.org.

From held back to no holding back

Torey Glover, left, and his twin, Trinidy Glover, right, pictured with their mother, Kim Glover, experienced a stunning academic turnaround at Lake City Christian Academy, which they attend on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

By JEFF BARLIS

LAKE CITY, Fla. – Sitting in the principal’s office of her twin sons’ school, Kim Glover pushed aside a couple of strands of wavy, auburn hair and took a breath to compose herself as she recounted the boys’ stunning transformation.

“I’ll try not to cry,” she said with her mellifluous Southern drawl.

After the family endured a drawn-out, painful divorce, Torey and Trinidy went from failing classroom distractions to model students, from being retained in seventh grade to posting high GPAs.

Her boys did the heavy lifting, but Kim says it wouldn’t have been possible without the stable, nurturing environment of Lake City Christian Academy and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship from Step Up For Students that enabled a divorced mom with three jobs to afford tuition.

“You can see how much this environment makes a difference,” Kim said with a sweep of her arm as if to highlight the abundance of open, green space, and the peaceful sounds of farm animals and children that waft through the 20-acre campus.

“It’s smaller classrooms. It’s teachers giving more one on one. They give you their phone numbers. It’s a family environment.”

Kim heard about the scholarship from a staffer at the neighborhood elementary school, where her oldest son, Trey, had been held back in first grade and was struggling with dyslexia. He got on track at LCCA. The twins followed after trying the neighborhood school for one week and not liking it.

Torey and Trinidy are fraternal twins, but hard to tell apart. They have the same angular faces with side-swept, light brown hair that falls in their eyes. They prefer to wear muted colors. They’re best friends who idolize their older brother, love baseball and being outdoors. Kim sometimes thinks they’re telepathic.

Seeing their parents’ marriage fall apart and being caught literally in the middle of mental and physical abuse took an awful toll.

“It got very bad,” Kim said. “When we split, it got violent. I went into a shelter for three months with all three boys. It took four years to get a divorce.”

The twins shut down at school. They were chronically tardy, disregarded classwork and talked incessantly.

“We were focused on socializing, mainly hanging out with friends, becoming teenagers,” Trinidy said. “Our priorities were screwed up.”

Twins Torey and Trinidy Glover have bonded with friends and teachers on the Lake City Christian Academy campus, which boasts a 21-stall horse barn, a farming area and a dance studio.

Torey and Trinidy had been behind after arriving at LCCA in second grade unable to read. It helped that principal Tana Norris and pastor/administrator Pete Beaulieu had known the family since the boys were little.

“We could have pushed them forward and hoped they would catch on at some point,” said Beaulieu, who had been the children’s pastor. “Holding somebody back is never an easy decision. But they were going through stress at home, and they were in the middle of searching for themselves.”

Too many D’s and F’s in seventh grade gave Torey and Trinidy no choice but to repeat. Friends asked what happened but were supportive. Teachers rallied. Everyone lifted them up with care, sensitivity, and good advice.

The twins took it to heart.

“I just got tired of failing,” Torey said.

Their teacher told Kim how Torey decided he wanted to get good grades because he saw how hard his mom worked, and he wanted to take care of her.

“That was heartbreaking in a good way,” she said.

The changes came suddenly. Kim remembers coming home one evening to Torey and Trinidy doing homework. She felt their foreheads.

Are you my child?

What’s going on?

“That light just clicked on,” Norris said.

Since eighth grade, C’s are rare. Kim has stopped worrying and no longer has to nag about school.

“They tell me what’s going on,” she said. “I hear them talking about school, classes, tests, and homework. It makes me proud.”

Torey and Trinidy give much of the credit to LCCA and their teachers.

“We have really close interactions with the teachers,” Trinidy said. “It’s nice. In the small classrooms you get a bond with all of your friends and even with the teachers. It feels like they’re one of your best friends or even a family member.”

The twins are in 10th grade now. Torey has a 3.75 GPA; Trinidy has a 3.41. They talk about starting careers after high school, although their ideas seem to change daily. They have a firm belief in themselves that Norris says wasn’t there before.

“They’re totally different,” she said. “They have goals and they have things they want to do, and they know they can accomplish them because they’re successful.”

About Lake City Christian Academy

Norris opened the school on a 1-acre lot with a 3,000-square-foot building in 1994 with 25 students. In 2000, LCCA moved to a vast campus with a 21-stall horse barn, a lighted equestrian arena, farming areas, a dance studio, a chapel, softball and baseball fields, a covered basketball court, 15 classrooms and a cafeteria. LCCA employs an experiential learning approach with farming, equestrian and video game design programs. Every student has an individual learning plan. BJU Press and Abeka are among the classroom materials. The independent, non-denominational school is accredited by Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS), and has 242 K-12 students, including 132 on Step Up For Students Florida Tax Credit scholarships. The Stanford 10 test is administered in April and STAR reading and math assessments are given three times a year. K-12 tuition is $6,000.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.


Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

Private school, public district collaborate to benefit teachers, students

school choice
St. Andrew assistant principal Bambi Giles, left, and principal Judi Hughes worked together for more than four years in Lee and Collier county district schools

By JEFF BARLIS

CAPE CORAL, Fla. – Judi Hughes is a serial retirer.

Nowhere is her quick wit more evident than when she explains why she came out of retirement a third time – after more than 40 years in the School District of Lee County – to be principal at St. Andrew Catholic School in this sprawling, sun-soaked suburban city.

“Irish Catholic guilt,” she says with a rhythmic chuckle, adding that she only had intended to help with the hiring process when the school drafted her.

Five years later, she’s still brimming with infectious energy that flashes from her baby blue eyes, and she’s found a way to marry her knack for building relationships with a natural instinct for being a private school administrator.

Some folks just aren’t meant to retire.

“I know!” she beams. “I’ve tried it a few times. I think I’m getting the hang of it now.”

Hughes did it all in Lee County public schools. A teacher in the county’s first middle school program, a principal, district director for elementary and secondary education. She opened a few schools, won blue ribbons and other awards, worked as a curriculum director in jails, retention centers, and drug rehabilitation centers before twice being coaxed out of retirement to start ninth-grade programs.

Now she’s the leader and beating heart of a thriving Catholic school – 315 K-8 students, up from 295 last year and 275 the year before – and she couldn’t be happier. Seventy-nine students use a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families. Step Up For Students administers the scholarships.

“This place is just different, and it’s a pleasure,” she said during a recent tour. “These folks have known each other for years, but they welcome new people in. The understanding is that you join the culture of caring and building faith. Hearts and minds, it’s not just words in a mission statement. They pondered it. These teachers do more. They know every child by name.”

It’s no coincidence that Hughes and assistant principal Bambi Giles, who spent more than four years in Lee and Collier county schools, have hired educators with a similar public school background. Ten of the school’s 23 teachers, in fact.

It’s also no surprise that Hughes and those teachers have maintained their ties. For years, teachers at St. Andrews have participated in professional development with the Lee County district, learning about classroom management, teaching strategies and exceptional student education.

“Once you’re a member of the school district of Lee County, you’re part of our family,” said Lynn Harrell, executive director of leadership, professional development and recruitment for Lee County schools. “Judi was for lots and lots of years. That makes it just a little bit easier, just like in any family, to keep and maintain that relationship so that we’re working together. Because in the end, we’re all working for children.”

Hughes was a mentor to Harrell earlier in her career when Harrell was a school administrator. It’s just one of myriad relationships forged through years of work and trust and common goals.

“Our relationship with Lee County is really wonderful,” said Giles, noting the weight that Hughes’ name carries. “They are very professional. They’ll answer any questions. They’ll contact us. It’s never a problem.”

James Herzog, associate director for education with the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, is encouraged by this example of public-private school partnership.

“It shows that education is not an us-against-them proposition,” he said. “Instead it’s all about collaboration to benefit all of Florida’s school children. Hopefully we can encourage other schools and districts to work together.”

Every Wednesday at St. Andrew there is early dismissal for teachers to collaborate and do professional development.

“I just think that’s what runs everything,” Hughes said.

Some of those former public school educators at St. Andrew, like first-grade teacher Crystal Melton, get two emails every Monday morning about professional development offerings – one from Giles and one from a former public school mentor.

St. Andrew educators, from left, Sharon Zebley, Crystal Melton, Lisa Olson, Susie Loughren, Cathy Calcaterra and Bambi Giles, come together as a family to nurture students and each other.

This group-within-a-group of teachers has helped the members transition from public to private. They’re all grateful for the extensive training they received in the public school system, but they’re also quick to state their reasons for choosing to teach at a private school.

Music teacher Julius Davis simply feels more at home in a spiritual environment. Davis, in his first year at St. Andrew, said he feels “set free” to be himself and exude his principles. Christmastime was particularly satisfying after nearly 20 years in public schools.

“I grew up in a black Baptist church, and I’ve played (music) for Methodist churches,” he said. “Coming here, the emphasis on the spiritual, this is the first time I’ve been able to teach stuff I grew up with. I wasn’t allowed to do that in the public school.”

Others, like Melton, kindergarten teacher Susie Loughren, and fifth-grade teacher Lisa Olson, have children at St. Andrew. But while the family atmosphere contributes greatly to their happiness, their choice to teach in private school was more complex.

Loughren, in her second year at St. Andrew after seven years teaching in public schools, feels she can be more creative, has more freedom and less test anxiety.

“The administration trusts us that we’re going to do what’s best in the interests of those children,” she said. “So if something goes on in your classroom and you need to focus on a social, emotional skill, you take that liberty to do it. It’s not just about getting in the academic rigor. We do it on a daily basis, but we have the opportunity to stop and do those teachable moments.”

Hughes recognized that stress, saw the anxious teachers who were afraid to break from the mold, “afraid of their own shadow,” as she saw it. There was more and more emphasis on tests and fewer field trips.

At St. Andrew, she works to pump confidence and empowerment into her staff.

“I’m happy I made the choice to come here, because I didn’t end my teaching career at a time when things weren’t going as positively,” she said. “I felt the stress of the teachers and couldn’t do anything to help them. They were losing their identity, feeling like they don’t have any choice or any power.

“Here they are free to make sound educational choices. And they have to be sound, because they have to show how it’s going to help with the standards. We give them as much freedom as we can. And they really own part of this school.”

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

Patience, understanding bring scholarship student back from brink

Glad Tidings Academy teacher Andrene Donaldson, left, makes it a point to respond with patience and understanding when working with students like Darryl Dutervil, center, and communicating with parents like Darryl’s mother, Rose Theagene, right.

By JEFF BARLIS

OCOEE, Fla. – The young teacher called, tears choking her words. She wanted to quit.

On the other end of the line was Rose Theagene, horrified but not surprised. She knew her youngest son, Darryl Dutervil, was on the verge of expulsion due to escalating behavior problems in first grade at his neighborhood school.

“He threw a chair at the teacher, and it almost hit another student,” she recalled. “He was pushing and hitting kids. Parents were complaining. It was very bad. At the meeting, I just said I would take Darryl out of the school to save everyone the trouble.”

Rose had her theories about what was behind Darryl’s problems. He had been diagnosed with ADHD and the medicine was making him feel sick. At home, she said, his behavior was fine but only because she spoiled him.

After years of working in customer care for a health care company and attending school as a single mother of two, Rose became a licensed practical nurse two years ago, around the time she withdrew Darryl. A fellow nurse told her about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which helps lower-income families with private school tuition.

It took almost two years and an ill-fated move to Daytona Beach for work reasons, but in January 2017, Rose finally found a school – Glad Tidings Academy – where Darryl and older brother Stacey Singleton were at home.

The teacher who went beyond

Parents and students alike love Andrene Donaldson. She’s fair and compassionate, but she can be tough and blunt, too. A former public school teacher in Jamaica, her thick accent floats through the classroom like music. But all it takes is one look, and the students know she’s serious.

“She has so much fun with them that they instantly know when she’s not happy,” said Glad Tidings principal Amanda Bleggi.

Donaldson was Stacey’s sixth-grade teacher last year. He was a breeze. Good student. Shy, honest, and respectful.

This year, Donaldson teaches Darryl in third grade. Within two days, she, too, thought she might give up.

Darryl was angry and aggressive all the time. He screamed. He cursed. He never had anything nice to say to his classmates. He would snap and toss chairs. Once, he pushed Donaldson.

“Last year,” he said meekly, “was challenging.”

Donaldson made it a point to always respond with patience, understanding, and soft tones.

“He expected me to be mad at him, but I just never treated him the way he expected,” she said. “When he was negative, I was positive.”

One Saturday, Donaldson’s husband bought her a success board for Darryl to track his achievements. They started small. Two hours a day of good behavior slowly turned into one full day a week. She rewarded him with certificates, snacks, pencils, erasers, and sometimes something sweet.

“I couldn’t believe the amount of work and effort she put into just one child,” Bleggi said. “But he started to see he could succeed. It was that board.”

It was a matter of trust, too.

“When I’m angry, she calms me down,” Darryl said. “She’ll take me outside to take deep breaths, and then she lets me come back in and try again, over and over again. If I make her mad, she still loves me.”

The principal who understood

It was Bleggi, a Long Islander who became a customer relations expert in her previous career with Disney, who recognized that academics were quietly fueling Darryl’s loud outbursts.

“When he came to us, he was failing everything,” she said. “He had no confidence in himself. He didn’t believe he could do his work. There were little things he couldn’t understand, so he would get frustrated and embarrassed.”

There were countless incidents, several worthy of dismissal. But Bleggi dug in her heels.

“He should have been expelled, but I knew that wouldn’t do anything,” she said. “He would just be shoved along.”

She called Rose in for a talk and assured her that Darryl wasn’t going anywhere. Rose was taken aback. She had expected the opposite.

“When she said that, it gave me a chance to breathe,” Rose said. “They are fighting for him.”

The mom who pushed

In her new job, Rose was adjusting to working 12-hour shifts – at night. She got off at 7 a.m. and still made sure the kids got to school on time.

But every morning by 10, she expected a call from the school about Darryl. Desperately tired, she tried bribing him with ice cream and pizza.

“Just let Mommy sleep until 3 o’clock,” she pleaded.

Last fall, the calls stopped coming. Donaldson was using an app to communicate with parents. It made a ping on Rose’s phone whenever she got a message. That noise used to wake her up at 10 a.m. as well, but it was gradually replaced with photos of Darryl at work and at play, updates to his success board, and other encouraging notes.

It wasn’t an overnight transformation, but the extra communication helped. Rose got more involved during the day. She was getting fewer calls and pings, but she insisted on coming in to talk to Darryl every time.

It felt like she, Donaldson, and Bleggi were on the same page. Their patience became her patience. Their positive message hers.

She marveled at Darryl’s improvements this year and shined proudly when she saw A’s, B’s and one C on his report card.

“Darryl would wake up early, ready to go to school,” she said. “He would say, ‘Mommy, I’m going to have a good day today. You can sleep. You don’t have to worry.’ That’s when I knew the changes were real.”

The brother who led

At Glad Tidings, big brother Stacey was worried and afraid Darryl would get expelled and end up in a bad school. But at their neighborhood school, Stacey felt the sting of being lumped in and labeled.

“I heard teachers say, ‘There goes Darryl’s brother,’ ” Stacey said. “That’s why I didn’t want him to be bad, because it also reflects on me and my family.”

Darryl idolizes his brother. He wears his hair in the same kind of flat top with shaved sides as Stacey. They’re both stocky. They have the same cheeky grin. Stacey knew he could get through to Darryl. At Glad Tidings, he checked on his brother regularly.

“He looks after me,” Darryl said. “Even more than my mom.”

Stacey made a ritual of guiding his brother, made him his responsibility.

“Every morning, I gave him a pep talk of what not to do and what to do,” he said. “If there’s a person bothering you, just ignore him or tell the teacher.”

Stacey could see how those long, confidential talks really helped. Rose also felt it was a turning point when Darryl realized he was embarrassing his brother.

“I’m proud of him,” Stacey said. “I tell him ‘Good job’ a lot now, and I let him play with my video games more often.”

It’s always been about attention for Darryl, but now he feels the difference between positive and negative.

The more marks he got on his success board, the more often he went to Bleggi’s office to show her.

“By December,” she said, “I was looking at a new kid.”

Donaldson asked Bleggi to give Darryl a part in the Christmas play.

“It was a big deal for him,” Donaldson said. “Being in the play showed him and everybody that he wasn’t an outcast.”

It meant a lot more than positive reinforcement to Darryl.

“There were a lot of people, like a thousand,” he recounted. “I tried to act cool, but my heart was beating. When it was over, I felt happy. My family was proud of me.”

Darryl is happier, having more fun, getting in trouble less often and getting much better grades. Donaldson says his reading level is way up. He helps in the classroom, cleaning up and handing out folders and papers to his fellow students. He fits in at Glad Tidings in a way that he never had in school before.

“The whole school loves him,” Bleggi said. “We’re able to see his little personality now, instead of him being angry and disrespectful all the time.”

“I used to cringe every time I would hear his name, but now he comes up and gives me the biggest hugs. I can’t wait to see him in the morning. I can’t wait to hear what grade he got on his test, and he always comes up to show me now. It’s probably one of my favorite stories since working here. It’s been the most impressive turnaround I’ve seen any student make.”

About Glad Tidings Academy

Opened as a preschool in 2005, Glad Tidings expanded to kindergarten in 2014 and opened a second campus for K-8 in 2016. The school plans to have ninth grade next year and to add grades 10-12 each year thereafter. Glad Tidings is accredited and certified by Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS). There are 108 K-8 students, including 75 on Step Up For Students FTC scholarship. Glad Tidings emphasizes a child’s emotional, physical, relational, and cognitive development. The school uses Bob Jones University Press and Abeka curricula. The MAP Growth test is administered three times a year. Annual tuition is $5,940 for K-5 and $6,370 for 6-8.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

The family no one knew was homeless

Isabella, Ruthanne, and Gabriella Dumas have a home at Saint Ambrose Catholic School in Deerfield Beach, Fla.

By JEFF BARLIS

DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. – Just when Ruthanne Dumas thought her life couldn’t fall apart any further, she got the biggest scare of it.

A steady financial decline had left her and her two youngest daughters, Isabella and Gabriella, homeless. The girls had recently started at a new private school, thanks to education choice scholarships. And then a sudden illness landed Isabella in intensive care.

Doctors thought she might have leukemia.

“It was horrible,” Ruthanne recalled, her voice trembling.

After it turned out to be just a virus and the raw fear and panic had subsided, Isabella’s new principal and teacher arrived. They brought a garbage bag full of stuffed animals and cards from everyone in Isabella’s class. Her face lit up with joy.

“I didn’t know anyone other than my mom could care so much,” Isabella said.

That’s how it’s always been for the Dumas family at Saint Ambrose Catholic School in Deerfield Beach. Isabella wasn’t doing poorly in her neighborhood school, but Ruthanne wanted more – a smaller, safer school with a family environment. Saint Ambrose has been that and more.

She heard about it from a friend, visited and loved the efficiently laid-out campus. The main building is a 10-side polygon for grades K-5 with a social hall in the middle. Grades 6-8 are steps away. It’s hard to get lost. Principal Lisa Dodge, a police officer in the Dade County school system for 20 years, added safety measures like fences and a single point of entry.

Dodge told Ruthanne about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship administered by Step Up For Students. Ruthanne applied immediately and enrolled Isabella in fourth grade and Gabriella in kindergarten.

“It was a no-brainer,” Ruthanne said.

That was six years ago. Ruthanne owned five vacation rentals, but a steady stream of hurricanes starting in 2005 left her business in steep decline. She eventually had to sell the homes at a loss.

Her husband left around that time. Her mother, who helped out financially, got sick and died.

“You had to rob Peter to pay Paul,” she said. “Then all of a sudden there was no Peter left, and Paul was gone. It was ridiculous. Every day was something new. I looked up one day and that was it. It was all gone. There was nothing to dip into, no savings, no house, everything was gone.”

Before they started at Saint Ambrose, Ruthanne and her daughters packed everything they had into the trunk of her car. The girls stayed with friends. Ruthanne told them she was doing the same, but she was sleeping in the front seat of that hand-painted blue Toyota Corolla. Soon, they moved into a cheap motel.

“It was so bad,” she said. “There was prostitution next door. I wouldn’t let the girls go outside. We had to get out of there. We found a hotel close to the school with a mini-fridge and a microwave. That was our base.

“Every time we would move out thinking we had someplace to stay, we always went back to the same hotel.”

They’d stay for months at a time. Ruthanne used her tax return to get an apartment, but she couldn’t keep up with the rent. One year they stayed in an old camper on a friend’s property. But they ended up back at the hotel.

Ruthanne worked as a receptionist, making $420 a week. The hotel cost $386. But there was free breakfast and friendly staffers who let the girls take yogurt, bagels, fruit and cereal for lunches and dinners.

Ruthanne thought about moving to Chicago to be with family, but she craved stability for her daughters. And that’s exactly what they got at Saint Ambrose.

Principal Dodge helped out with uniforms and waived fees. She also opened up the school’s food bank to the Dumas family and gave donated Christmas presents to the girls.

“I was kind of hesitant to talk about them, because no one here really knows their story,” Dodge said. “Behind the scenes we saw it, but none of the kids knew anything about what was going on with them. There was no difference. It’s a testament to everything – the girls, their mom, Step Up.”

The goal was normalcy, its success measured in how well the girls did in school.

They’re happy, they bring home good grades – Gabriella is an honors student – and they love to participate in the school’s many family-oriented activities.

They had different groups of friends. They’re both shy around outsiders.

“If we walked past each other, we would just give each other a look and smile, not really acknowledge each other,” Gabriella said. “I think one time I tried to hug her and she pushed me away.”

Today, Ruthanne and her daughters live in an apartment with a roommate. Gabriella is in fifth grade. Isabella is in ninth grade at a public charter school. Classes there are a lot bigger. She misses the small campus, the polygon main building, and all the warm faces at Saint Ambrose.

“The girls are just lovely, full of grace, hard-working,” said Cindy Hagaman, who has taught both. “They’re very gentle, humble people. Both of them are excellent students.”

It’s been everything Ruthanne had hoped for and more. Her daughters have stability. It was something she could feel from the first day she dropped them off at Saint Ambrose.

“This school saved us,” she said. “Sometimes I look back and wonder what we would have done without them. They were there for us so many times and continue to be a part of us.”

Like one big family.

About Saint Ambrose Catholic School

Opened in 1964 as a part of the diocese of Palm Beach, the school started with grades 1-5 and expanded to K-8 by 1967. There are 238 students, including 118 on Step Up For Students tax credit scholarships. The curriculum includes a program of computer technology, robotics, art, music, and two foreign languages. The school administers the TerraNova test annually as well as the MAP Growth test three times a year. Annual tuition is $8,250 for K-5, $8,500 for 6-7, and $8,650 for eighth grade.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

Once bullied, now safe, happy, and thriving

Armani Powe, 12, stands tall and proud, happy to be a student at Glades Day School.

By JEFF BARLIS

BELLE GLADE, Fla. – When she’s in class, the look on Armani Powe’s face is solemn, focused. She doesn’t harden her gaze intentionally. It happens naturally.

“When it comes to my grades,” she says, “I get really serious.”

Armani, 12, turns quiet and a little withdrawn when asked about the bullying she endured in second grade at her neighborhood school.

“It makes me all sad just to remember it,” she explains with the distance of several years.

She doesn’t mind telling the story, though, because she’s happy, safe, and thriving now at a private school. A Florida Tax Credit Scholarship from Step Up For Students was the vehicle.

Armani had one bully with a band of two or three other boys who delighted in embarrassing her daily. They mocked her crooked teeth, her clothes, hair, backpack. Anything and everything and nothing.

She admits she was an inviting target.

“Looking back at my little self, I was quiet and nice and always doing my work, studying all the time, reading a book in class, and not talking,” she said. “That’s probably why they picked on me.”

The taunting chipped away at her self-image. The worst was how she felt about her teeth. She kept asking her mom when she could get braces, but they were too expensive.

One day, Armani was crying when her mother, Roline Powe, was called early to pick her up. Armani said she didn’t want to go to school anymore. She showed her mom a red hand print on her face where her bully had just slapped her.

That was it.

Roline had requested meetings before, but school officials never filed reports. They always promised they would handle it.

“They just downplayed everything,” she said. “I went in at least five times.”

She felt a nauseating mix of anger and guilt in her stomach. She couldn’t stop thinking about the braces she couldn’t afford.

“It was the most horrible thing to not be able to give your child the care they need,” she said. “But not only was she teased, she was hit! All because of her appearance.”

Determined to fix the situation herself, Roline went to nearby Glades Day School to see if private school could be an option. Everyone in this small town knows about Glades Day and its reputation for preparing children for college, trades, and agriculture careers.

She was nervous when she went in for a meeting. A friend who sent her daughter to GDS had told Roline the price of one year’s tuition, and she nearly buckled.

“I could only dream,” she said.

But it came true when an administrator told her about the scholarship from Step Up For Students. It gives lower-income families the power to choose the school that best suits their children’s needs.

This school year, the state instituted the HOPE Scholarship to give victims of bullying the option to transfer to another public school or to an approved private school as soon as their scholarship is approved.

Roline is glad to see the new scholarship in place. It might have helped prevent some of the trauma Armani endured in the weeks after she was slapped.

“It was the hardest thing getting through that year,” said Roline, who was then a substitute teacher at the neighborhood middle school and now works as an assistant teacher. “There were times I had to take a day off of work, go there, and monitor without her seeing me. I’d watch the playground from the parking lot. Sometimes I picked her up 10 minutes early.”

“It was a journey. She made it through, but if she had remained there, she probably would have needed some therapy.”

As it turned out, Glades Day School was all Armani needed.

Head of School Amie Pitts, herself a graduate of Glades Day, has carefully crafted a safe space for learning. Character isn’t just emphasized, it’s talked about by the student body on a weekly basis.

“Environment is a very big deal, and this is a different environment,” she said. “Our mission is a safe family environment, and I think we do a very good job. We pride ourselves on family. We see it as a partnership between the home and the school to raise great kids who are successful in life.”

There’s a friendly feeling that swirls through the school buildings along with the strong breeze that pushes from massive Lake Okeechobee to the north. The 30-acre campus is buttressed by cane fields to the south and east, and a sugar mill looms large across the street with smokestacks constantly churning. It’s a reminder of a life in the fields that Roline so badly wants her children to avoid.

It didn’t take long for Armani to adjust. She quickly went from tentative to curious about her new school. Soon, she was talking to others without feeling scared. They were small steps.

Every Wednesday, students wear orange shirts that say “Bullying” or “Cyberbullying” in a circle with a slash through it. Every Friday, the student body gathers to talk and lift each other up.

“We talk about kindness first,” Armani said. “People talk about what we do and should do in the world. We get it right.”

By the time Armani started her second year, she was joined by older brother Lorenzo and younger brother Shemar.

“It was the best decision I could have made for my family,” Roline said. “And for Armani, it was a game-changer.”

Roline said Glades Day has made her a better, more attentive parent. She doesn’t just help with homework anymore, she has a presence at the school. Everyone knows her as “Momma Powe.”

“She is extremely engaged,” Pitts said. “She’s here every day. She’s at every single sporting event, comes to all the meetings, reads to her son in the media center. She wants better for her kids, and they’re doing very well.”

Armani is a solid B-student striving for more. She asks for help whenever she struggles with a subject. She wants to be a veterinarian someday.

She feels safe now, settled. She has learned how to be brave and confident.

When she looks back at her little self from second grade, she feels a profound difference that goes beyond her long limbs and strong shoulders. She’s comfortable in her own skin and doesn’t worry about her appearance.

Braces fixed her teeth a couple of years ago, and she must be one of the only pre-teens around who’s excited to get them put on for a second time.

“I have a big, cheesy smile,” she said. “My friends love when I smile.”

She does it all the time. Just not when she’s focused in class.

About Glades Day School

Now in its 53rd year, GDS moved from Pahokee to Belle Glade in 1973. The school is accredited by the Florida Council of Independent Schools. Teachers have an average of 20 years of experience. Nineteen GDS employees are graduates. There are 257 K-12 students, including 94 on Step Up For Students Scholarships. The school has a thriving Agri-science program that’s tied to the Future Farmers of America and features welding, gardening, even a hog pen to train students in Grades 7-12. There are also four computer labs and smartboards in several classrooms. Dual enrollment, Advanced Placement and virtual school courses are offered. The Stanford 10 test is administered every March. Annual tuition is $7,800 for K-5; $8,800 for 6-8; and $9,800 for 9-12 with financial aid available. Transportation is available as far east as Royal Palm Beach and as far west as Clewiston.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Company makes $4 million contribution to Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By ASHLEY ZARLE

Step Up For Students announced recently a $4 million contribution to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program from Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Company (UPCIC), a wholly owned subsidiary of Universal Insurance Holdings, Inc.

The $4 million donation will fund 565 K-12 scholarships for the 2018-19 school year, so lower-income children can attend the school that best meets their learning needs. This is the second year that UPCIC has partnered with Step Up For Students and has contributed a total of $6 million to the scholarship program.

“We are grateful for corporate donors like Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Company who are helping to provide educational opportunities for Florida schoolchildren,” said Joe Pfountz, chief financial officer of Step Up For Students. “The company’s generosity is crucial to the work our team does and shows just how much they really care about Florida’s kids and its future.”

On Dec. 4 Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Company announced a $4 million contribution to Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are UPCIC’s Regional VP of Marketing-Northeast/Midwest David Ahern, UPCIC’s Spokesperson and NFL Hall of Famer Dan Marino, UPCIC’s COO Steve Donaghy, UPCIC’s Vice President of Marketing Stacey Tomko, UPCIC’s Regional VP of Marketing-Southeast Derek Heard, UPCIC’s VP of Corporate Development & Strategy Rob Luther, and St. Joan of Arc School Principal Caroline Roberts. They are joined by several students from St. Joan of Arc School who are benefiting from the scholarship.

On Dec. 4 Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Company announced a $4 million contribution to Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are UPCIC’s Regional VP of Marketing-Northeast/Midwest David Ahern, UPCIC’s Spokesperson and NFL Hall of Famer Dan Marino, Step Up For Students CFO Joe Pfountz, UPCIC’s COO Steve Donaghy, UPCIC’s Vice President of Marketing Stacey Tomko, UPCIC’s Regional VP of Marketing-Southeast Derek Heard, UPCIC’s VP of Corporate Development & Strategy Rob Luther, and St. Joan of Arc School Principal Caroline Roberts. They are joined by several students from St. Joan of Arc School who are benefiting from the scholarship.

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and allows parents and students to choose between a K-12 scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

“Universal is committed to giving back and empowering the communities that it serves to accelerate community opportunities and build the foundation for the next generation of business leaders,” said Sean Downes, chairman and chief executive officer for Universal. Dan Marino, UPCIC spokesperson, National Football League hall of famer and former Miami Dolphins quarterback made a special appearance and spoke to the schoolchildren at an event on Dec. 4 hosted by St. Joan of Arc School in Boca Raton, Florida.

“Having options and choice in where you go to school is important and I’m excited to see so many students here today who have access to the learning environment that best suits their individual needs,” said Marino. “We know that the education you receive will help propel you to do great things.”

For the 2018-19 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 98,500 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,519 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,815 for sixth through eighth grade, and $7,111 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Ashley Zarle can be reached at azarle@sufs.org.

Caldwell Trust Company celebrates 25th anniversary and continued support of Step Up For Students

By ASHLEY ZARLE

Caldwell Trust Company, an independent trust company with more than 25 years of investment experience and one billion dollars in assets under management recently announced a $30,000 contribution to Step Up For Students Scholarship Program for the 2018-19 school year.

Caldwell Trust has been a partner of Step Up For Students since 2011 and has contributed a total of $220,000 towards the scholarship program. The company’s contribution over the years has funded 40  K-12 scholarships so lower-income children can attend the school that best meets their learning needs.

“At Caldwell Trust, we consider it our civic duty and privilege to contribute to our community both as a company and as individuals,” said R.G. “Kelly” Caldwell, Jr., president and CEO of Caldwell Trust Company.  “We are proud to partner with Step Up For Students and support the unique learning needs of Florida schoolchildren.”

Caldwell Trust is also celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year and Step Up scholars and parents from Epiphany Cathedral School in Venice, which serves more than 250 Step Up students, wanted to thank the company for its support.

On Nov. 29, they visited the company headquarters and presented 25 handwritten thank you cards to Caldwell Trust associates in recognition of the milestone anniversary. Students, parents, and Epiphany Cathedral administrators had the opportunity to share their personal experience about the importance and impact of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program.

“Our school wouldn’t be what it is today without Step Up For Students,” said M.C. Heffner, principal of Epiphany Cathedral. “We are so thankful that these deserving students can attend our school, who without the scholarship wouldn’t be able to.”

On Nov. 29 Caldwell Trust Company celebrated its’ cumulative contribution of $220,000 to Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are Epiphany Cathedral School Principal M.C. Heffner, Caldwell Trust’s President and CEO R.G. “Kelly” Caldwell, Jr., and Step Up For Student’s Development Officer Cheryl Audus. They are joined by several students from Epiphany Cathedral who are benefiting from the scholarship.

On Nov. 29 Caldwell Trust Company celebrated its cumulative contribution of $220,000 to Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are Epiphany Cathedral School Principal M.C. Heffner, Caldwell Trust’s President and CEO R.G. “Kelly” Caldwell, Jr., and
Step Up For Student’s Development Officer Cheryl Audus. They are joined by several students from Epiphany Cathedral who are benefiting from the scholarship.

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and allows parents and students to choose between a K-12 scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

 “We are thrilled that Caldwell Trust has once again committed to helping us provide educational choices for students who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are grateful for our partnership and for all they are doing to give back to their community.”

For the 2018-19 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 98,500 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,519 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,815 for sixth through eighth grade, and $7,111 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Ashley Zarle can be reached at azarle@sufs.org.

Globe Life makes $25,000 contribution to Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By ASHLEY ZARLE

Globe Life, the top volume issuer of ordinary individual life insurance policies in the United States, announced Dec. 17 a $25,000 contribution to Step Up For Students Scholarship Program for the 2018-19 school year.

This is the first time that Globe Life has supported Step Up For Students. The company’s contribution will fund three K-12 scholarships so lower-income children can attend the school that best meets their learning needs.

“Since 1951, Globe Life has believed in giving back to the communities in which we live and work,” said Corey Jones, Senior Vice President of Digital Marketing and Branding for Globe Life. “We strive to create opportunities to be a source of good to those around us and we are proud to support Step Up For Students to provide education opportunities for children in our community.”

Corey Jones, Globe Life Senior Vice President of Digital Marketing and Branding, right, presents David Bryant, Step Up For Students development officer, with a check for $25,000 which will fund three scholarships for lower-income Florida schoolchildren to attend the school of their choice through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. .

Corey Jones, Globe Life Senior Vice President of Digital Marketing and Branding, right, presents David Bryant, Step Up For Students development officer, with a check for $25,000 which will fund three scholarships for lower-income Florida schoolchildren to attend the school of their choice through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program
.

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and allows parents and students to choose between a K-12 scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

 “We are honored to welcome Globe Life as a supporter of our mission to help lower-income Florida families access schools that best fit their children’s unique learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are grateful for their generosity and their commitment to giving back to their community.”

For the 2018-19 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 98,500 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,519 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,815 for sixth through eighth grade, and $7,111 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Ashley Zarle can be reached at azarle@sufs.org.

Choice scholarship provided brothers an extended family

Preston, Linda, and Tyler McDonald.

By JEFF BARLIS

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Tyler McDonald, 19, and his brother Preston, 18, stand out in a crowd. Tall and athletic, their breezy, no-worries attitudes are as evident as the sparkle in their hazel-brown eyes.

They are All-American, boy-next-door types, the highest of achievers who say they wouldn’t be where they are now – Princeton and Duke, respectively – had it not been for Clearwater Central Catholic High School and the education choice scholarship that made it possible to attend.

Going to CCC was about much more than great academics.

They initially were raised in a comfortable middle-class home, never wanting. Everything changed seven years ago when their father left. The divorce was bitter and protracted. Their mother, Linda, would cry in her closet.

“She may think she hid it, but we could tell,” Tyler recounted with a twinge of sadness. “The toughest thing was there was nothing we could do about it.”

A couple of years before the divorce, Linda had stopped working as a nurse to take care of her mother, who was left paralyzed after an operation. During and after the divorce, she felt the sting of an extended unemployment she never planned. She needed a job with more flexibility and became a substitute teacher at the neighborhood middle school to be closer to her sons.

But it wasn’t enough. The three moved to smaller and smaller homes. The power and water were turned off on more than one occasion. Food shopping was for necessities only. Clothes shopping was once a year when the sales were on. Sports shoes and equipment had to last two years instead of one.

As they rallied around each other, help arrived in the form of a private school family that embraced and lifted them.

 

Sunlight cascades through the north-facing windows of the administration building at CCC. When visitors enter, they see the cheery, bespectacled face of front office manager Mary Weber. Her unofficial title is Director of First Impressions, and it only takes a moment to see why – she knows every one of the 500-plus students by name.

A warm, family feeling permeates campus.

That’s how it was for Tyler and Preston, when they each visited as eighth-graders and spent shadow days sitting in on a full slate of classes. CCC students grabbed every chance to talk to Tyler, asking as many questions about him as they answered.

“I shadowed at a nearby district school right before that,” he said. “It felt like I was just watching class. No one talked to me. It was a big difference.”

A year later, Preston got the same vibe at CCC.

“People were telling me the good stuff so that I would come,” he said. “It was really welcoming.”

 

Tyler, Preston, and Linda are a tight unit, a triumphant trio. They joke, tease, and finish each other’s sentences.

Born in the Bahamas and raised in Florida, Linda has a light accent and a modest, girlish giggle. It comes over her like a blush when she talks about her sons’ accomplishments.

After the divorce, anger and hurt were common but never affected Tyler or Preston at school. Linda had always pushed them gently to strive for straight A’s, and when they got the taste for it, they never looked back.

When it was time to choose a high school, there were public school magnets and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs in the mix. But it was the family feeling at CCC that made such an impression on those first visits – for the boys and for Linda.

“I remember going into (Director of Enrollment Tara Shea McLaughlin’s) office, knowing Tyler had really fallen in love with the school,” Linda said. “I was in tears because I didn’t know how I was going to afford this.”

McLaughlin spoke with the finance department. The school offered significant tuition assistance, but it wasn’t enough. They also helped Linda apply for the Step Up For Students scholarship that empowers low-income families to choose a private school.

It still didn’t cover everything.

“It was important to come up with a monthly payment that was not overwhelming, so she wasn’t in a panic every month,” said McLaughlin, herself an alumnus of CCC. “Any of us could be in the same situation. We saw the potential in those boys, so we needed to make it happen.”

McLaughlin also opened the school closet of gently used uniforms to Linda and got CCC’s uniform company to donate shoes to all of the school’s Step Up scholars.

Tyler McDonald’s senior portrait.

Preston McDonald’s senior portrait.

“It’s hard to compute the things they’ve done for my kids,” Linda said, recalling how she sometimes had to send Tyler to the finance office with a late check and an apology. “They were an amazing group of people. They nurtured my kids.”

Wanting to show her gratitude, Linda threw herself into volunteering. Despite working full-time as a public school teacher, she sold tickets and concessions at sporting events and helping with the school’s annual fundraising gala.

“Every CCC parent volunteers 15 hours, but Linda was in the hundreds of hours,” McLaughlin said. “She was everywhere.”

Tyler and Preston were enormously popular. They were sports stars who shined even brighter in the classroom. Tyler was valedictorian with an Ivy League future. Preston graduated at the top of his class with a full IB diploma.

“We’re beyond proud,” McLaughlin said, radiating like a parent. “We’re over the moon that they came here, and they will always be part of the CCC family.”

 

Today, Tyler is a sophomore football player majoring in economics at Princeton (which he chose over Harvard and Yale). He’s pondering careers in investment banking, private equity, corporate real estate, and management consulting.

In his first year at Duke, Preston wants to study computer programming and software engineering while getting a business certificate.

The boys stay in touch with each other mostly via text, at least three times a week. They’ve always been competitive and love to verbally spar over their IQs and now their colleges’ rankings. When they returned for the holiday, they cherished their time at home, together again.

Thanksgiving used to evoke dark memories.

“Right after the divorce, splitting every holiday was weird,” Tyler said. “Thanksgiving is supposed to be about family, but it’ll never be the same.”

This year, Tyler took part in “Friendsgiving,” a potluck set up by 15-20 CCC grads that’s been going on for three years. There was turkey, ham, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole … all the trimmings.

“It started my senior year, just to hang out,” he said. “But it’s still running two years out of high school.”

“I don’t think we’d have that big a group or that cohesive a group if we had gone to any other high school.”

Indeed, after going to CCC, family will never be the same.

About Clearwater Central Catholic High School

Founded in 1962 with 96 students and seven staff members, the school graduated its first class of 26 seniors two years later. CCC, which is overseen by the Diocese of St. Petersburg, has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a National School of Excellence. The 40-acre campus is a short walk from an inlet of Tampa Bay. The school is accredited by AdvancED and has 541 students, including 75 on Step Up For Students scholarships. CCC is an IB School with a 65 percent award rate in the full IB Diploma Program. The school also offers dual enrollment courses with St. Petersburg College as well as Advanced Placement (AP) Program courses for college credit. The PSAT test is administered to ninth and 10th graders. Tuition is $14,950 annually, and $12,400 for a family affiliated with a local Catholic parish. In 2017-18, CCC provided more than $425,000 in income-based tuition assistance to more than 25 percent of its families.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

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